In the beginning, every town had a school.
Many schools had only one room with all grades and as many as 100 students. Teachers in these
schools were expected to teach, clean the school, chop the wood, stoke the fire, prime
the pump, and feed the children in return for poverty-level wages. At the same time,
they were required to be models of virtue and sobriety.
In 1888, eight women elementary teachers formed the Lady Teachers’ Association of Toronto
to fight for better wages and working conditions. By 1920, elementary teachers had two voluntary
organizations, one for woman – FWTAO – and one for men – OPSMTF.
In the 20s, teachers made gains in salaries, but a teacher surplus, a recession, and the
stock market crash brought these gains to a halt.
Sound familiar? Between 1930 and 1936, men teachers lost about
38% of salary and women about 55%. Your pay depended on where you taught, the grade you
taught and whether you were a man or a woman. In 1944, the government passed legislation
that made all teachers members of a federation. Membership doubled overnight. Resources could
now be directed to teacher protection and programs rather than to sign-up campaigns.
Following World War 2 federations developed a grid system for salaries based on qualifications
and experience. It wasn’t until 30 years later that the grid applied to all teachers.
Between 1945 and 1955, the average wage increased by 90% for men teachers and 130% for women
teachers. In the early 50s the baby boom hit schools.
Enrolment increased from 437,000 in 1945 to 645,000 ten years later. The government responded
by lowering the standards to become a teacher; the federations responded by introduced professional
development and additional support. Married women returned to teaching and brought with
them new bargaining priorities – equal pay and maternity leave.
Thanks to the federations, by the time the province passed maternity leave legislation
in 1970, most elementary teachers were already getting it.
The seventies. Many things contributed to change. Teachers were part of that change. On December 18, 1973, 80,000 teachers left
their classrooms to protest anti-teacher legislation. 30,000 protested at Queen’s Park. It was the
first ever walkout by teachers. It was illegal, but the teachers were supported
by other workers and by students. The government gave in to teacher demands.
In 1975, teachers won the right to bargain collectively and to strike. Peel Teachers
were the first to strike. Their issues were seniority and redundancy from declining enrolment.
In April 1989, over 20,000 Ontario teachers demonstrated in Hamilton calling for an equal
teacher voice in their pension plan. This became law in 1991.
In 1993, the government made cuts to the public sector.
Sound familiar? Education share was $520 million. For the
first time, teachers sat side by side with their union colleagues from municipalities,
universities, and hospitals. In 1998, Mike Harris cut 2 billion dollars
from public education, and restructured education and teacher bargaining. Teachers walked out
for 10 days, not in an illegal strike, but in a political protest.
The same year, public elementary teachers created the Elementary Teachers’ Federation
of Ontario, ETFO, the largest teacher union in the country, and the only one to have designated
funding, programs, and executive positions for women. From its beginning, ETFO was committed
to equity and social justice. We learned to work together and, in 2003,
defeated the Harris government. We worked with the new government to get smaller classes
in the primary grades and eliminate teacher testing.
ETFO members became active – in their union, in the labour movement, in politics and in
their communities. In 2008, the stock market crashed. Provincial
revenues dropped. The Liberals introduced an austerity agenda. Along with other public
sector workers, we suffered. We lost two percent in wages, but not everything was bad.
In 2010, the government introduced full-day kindergarten staffed – at ETFO’s urging – with
teachers and early childhood educators working side-by-side throughout the school day.
These early childhood educators, DECEs, are now an integral part of our union. And recognizing
how children learn, we advocated for play-based learning in kindergarten and beyond. At the
same time, we escalated our campaign to eliminate standardized testing.
In 2018, the government announced a review: some things take a long time.
In 2010, ETFO launched 21 online Additional Qualification courses. ETFO is the first AQ
provider to focus on inclusive classrooms and teaching LGBTQ and FNMI students.
Bargaining became more difficult. In 2012, the government demanded a salary
freeze. ETFO wanted their two percent back. We campaigned: “Respect Teachers, Respect
Bargaining.” and took to TV with “Teachers Change Lives.”
The government introduced Bill 115 to impose OECTA’s concessions on other education unions.
ETFO rallied; we “paused” extracurricular activities; we participated in McGuinty Mondays.
Then we moved to one-day walkouts. We took the government to court; Charter rights are
for everyone, we said. In 2016, the court agreed. We are still waiting
for compensation. Bargaining moved into the political and public
arenas. We challenged the premier using his own words – “We respect the bargaining process
and the results of that process. We don’t tear up collective agreements.” He resigned.
The new Liberal leader, Kathleen Wynne, moved quickly to start bargaining: we got our two
percent. In 2014, ETFO began bargaining with OPSBA.
They demanded big strips. We mobilized members – “Our Union, Our Values, Our Profession.”
We withdrew services. We protested OPSBA and the Liberals and we won public support.
By November, ETFO had an agreement. Health and safety emerged as an issue. Staff,
activists and members confronted hazards -asbestos, radon and classroom violence.
ETFO is known for its commitment to equity and social justice. We introduced White Privilege
and Welcoming Newcomers workshops. We helped build Pride House and created resources for
LGBTQ students and educators. We developed training and resources to engage Indigenous
students and teach Indigenous history and culture.
ETFO – the largest teacher union in Canada – stands with unions and community groups
for equity and public education. Members participated in campaigns for the $15 minimum wage and
better employment standards. On June 7, 2018 Ontario had an election. A
Conservative majority government was elected, promising spending cuts. Thus, our second
decade ended as our first began. We will stay strong. We will stay united.
We will continue to work to build better schools for students and better communities for the
people of Ontario.